A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin review – an acute talent that deserves to be celebrated
The author’s eventful life provides the subject matter for stories pierced with loneliness and shame in a collection of great emotional range
Wednesday 30 September 201507.30 BST
Berlin appeared to fit many lives into her 68 years. Brought up in the remote mining camps of Alaska and the mid-west, she was an abused and lonely child in wartime Texas; a rich and privileged young woman in Santiago; a bohemian loft-living hipster in 50s New York; and an ER nurse in 70s inner-city Oakland. By the age of 32 she had been married three times, had four sons and was battling a chronic alcohol addiction.
Her eventful life provides the subject matter for these stories. In “So Long”, a marriage to a heroin addict is described as encompassing both “times of intense Technicolor happiness and times that were sordid and frightening”, and that goes some way to capturing the emotional range of the collection. Loneliness and shame creep through stories set in hospitals, detox clinics, old people’s homes and prisons, but despite the frequently bleak territory Berlin’s writing is characterised by an enormous appetite for life, for humour and for love. In “Tiger Bites”, a story detailing the horrors of a backstreet abortion clinic in Mexico, it is the warmth and wicked fun of the relationship between the narrator and her glamorous cousin that remain to the fore.
Berlin had many jobs during her life and she is an acute chronicler of institutions and the often overlooked world of work – in particular the low-prestige, low-paid work of nurses, cleaners, administrators and supply teachers. In “Let Me See You Smile”, one character is described as possessing “a compassionate curiosity about everyone”, and the same was clearly true of Berlin herself. Some of the stories, such as “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977”, approach reportage, but always with an eye for the poetic: “If their purses haven’t already been stolen old women never seem to have anything in them but bottom dentures, a 51 bus schedule and an address book with no last names.”
Berlin credits her mother for her powers of observation, writing in “Mama”: “We have remembered your jokes and your way of looking, never missing a thing. You gave us that. Looking.” These are stories that capture the near-invisible world around us – fleeting, telling details, from the banal to the poignant. Here a narrator muses on sliding doors on public transport: “Other things throw me into a panic, like BART doors. A long wait before the doors open, after the train comes to a stop. Not very long, but it’s too long.” Or here a nurse talks about the sick children in her care: “Most of them can’t cry. You can tell it must really hurt but there are just tears rolling sideways into their ears and this awful unworldly creaking, like a rusty gate, from deep inside.”
Berlin’s style is direct, reaching out from the page to the reader. You might be fooled into thinking you’re reading letters from a friend when she drops in lines such as “I know, I romanticise everything”, or “I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don’t actually ever lie.” But this almost chatty style is undercut by brutal one-liners and swift reversals that, along with skilful narrative shaping, remind you that these are painstakingly crafted stories. The narrator in “Mama” spends all her time persuading and finally convincing her dying sister that their callous, drunk mother deserved some compassion, before revealing in the last line: “Me … I have no mercy.”
The same mother and sister feature in many stories, and the autobiographical nature of the collection makes this a densely layered and rich reading experience. Characters and settings recur, and certain periods are seen through different filters in different stories, the cast and their relationships sliding in and out of focus.
In “Homing”, the final story, Berlin observes the roosting habits of crows from her porch: “But what bothers me is that I only accidentally noticed them. What else have I missed? How many times in my life have I been, so to speak, on the back porch, not the front porch? What would have been said to me that I failed to hear? What love might there have been that I didn’t feel?” On the evidence of this wonderful collection, she had no need to worry: she missed nothing.
• Catherine O’Flynn’s latest book Mr Lynch’s Holiday is published by Penguin. p of £1.99.